Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers is the highest ranked of her books on the Crime List, and I would guess that the complexity of the story — and the payoff for longtime Lord Peter Wimsey followers — is what puts it there. The book is part of Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey series, which has 12 books in all. This is book number 10, and the third book in which Harriet Vane joins Lord Peter in the mystery business.
I feel a little like I’m cheating to count this as read, because I skipped a bit in the middle. The skipping was unintentional — I put a bookmark in the wrong place, and then by the time I realized I’d skipped, it was too late to go back. But skipped I did. I liked a lot of what this book was trying to do. The mystery is set at a certain English women’s college that’s attached to a certain English men’s college of high reputation. Harriet Vane, a woman who writes mystery novels, returns to her old college and finds herself immediately caught up in a mystery. She calls on Lord Peter Wimsey, a famous detective, to come and help — but only with much hesitation, as Wimsey is both a) the man who saved her in another mystery story (it’s a whole series); b) a man who’s in love with her, and whose affections she fears; and c) a man whose affections she fears because she doesn’t want to become dependent upon a man.
There’s some interesting discussion in the plot about the role of women in academia versus the world and the sacrifices that the scholars in the story make and/or the benefits they reap. There’s also the undercurrent of the Wimsey/Vane romance, if you could call it that, which is at times very interesting and at times very frustrating. Nevertheless, in the time and for the audience that Sayers was writing, it’s something of a daring book, particularly considering the thin veil between herself and Harriet Vane.
As for the mystery itself — I was pretty fooled about which character was the culprit, but only through cheap trickery. There wasn’t a lot of chance to figure it out by myself, and at times, the mystery felt like it was taking second or even third place to the characters’ different dramas. Not a bad thing, always, but difficult if you have never (like me) read one of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories before.
I bought Gaudy Night from Borders Books during their Buy 2, Get One Free paperback sale, and finished reading it roughly at the end of June, 2009.